When medieval caliphs desired a fragrance to delight their senses, royal perfumers would have mixed Tibetan musk with an equal amount of Yemeni ambergris and steeped the mixture in ben tree oil over a weak fire. They would have stirred it with a gold spoon and used a silver vessel to refine it further until the liquid smelled like paradise itself. For the wife of caliph Harun al-Rashid, who was immortalised in One Thousand and One Nights, they would have added a touch of jasmine oil to evoke Persian gardens in bloom.
Fourteenth-century Egyptian scholar Al-Nuwayri explains these erstwhile perfume recipes in such detail that, in theory, they could be recreated. In practice, however, they can’t, since musk deer is a protected species and ambergris, the excretion of sperm whales, is rarer than rubies. The luxurious, oil-based perfumes Al-Nuwayri describes are a distant ancestor of the modern extrait de parfum, which is usually diluted in alcohol but still has sumptuously high proportions of fragrant oils. As I’ve noted before on perfume concentrations, the proportion of oil doesn’t affect the composition as much as the ingredients themselves. However, parfum has a specific appeal; designed to be applied directly on the skin, it envelops the wearer in a soft cloud of scent. The great classics such as Chanel No 5, Guerlain Jicky and Caron Tabac Blond were originally created as concentrated blends; their lighter variations appeared later in the second half of the 20th century when atomisers became increasingly popular.
The best way to understand what the iconic perfumes smelt like when they were first created is to try their parfum versions, which, despite numerous reformulations and changes in ingredients over the past century, retain at least some of the original character. Chanel’s Bois des Iles parfum (£185 for 15ml), for instance, has a beautiful suave finish, accented with sandalwood. The ripe apricot aroma of ylang-ylang stands out against a dark tapestry of woods, conveying perfumer Ernest Beaux’s interest in dramatic contrasts and plush effects.
When artisanal fragrance house Ormonde Jayne decided to offer several of its scents in a new guise, it was to parfum that founder Linda Pilkington turned. To say the resulting 42-per-cent-concentration Elixir collection is opulent is an understatement. The rose and amber Ta’if Elixir (£220 for 50ml) is languid and seductive, with a stronger emphasis on the floral mosaic than the original eau de parfum. Osmanthus Elixir (£195 for 50ml) is warm and lingering, richer in osmanthus, jasmine and sweet musk. Ormonde Jayne’s signature radiance gives these lush compositions an airiness and brightness, yet they still smell luxurious enough for a caliph.
Compared to an eau de toilette or eau de parfum, a parfum’s sillage is more intimate; it takes longer to develop and yet it lingers. Parfum also entails a special ritual to apply. A well-made blend requires no more than two swipes – behind the ears, on the chest or behind the knees. I recommend using a disposable applicator to avoid contaminating the liquid, especially if you save it for special moments. But, then, why limit the enjoyment to rare occasions when you can delight your senses every day?
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog Bois de Jasmin since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.